Carbon Dating and Clock of the Long Now

Marie Curie discovered that radiation was emitted from the decay of an atom over time. Then, Marie and Pierre Curie found the half life of carbon resulting in “Carbon dating.” Radiometric dating has been key to scientific advances showing that mythical stories about the earth being 6000 years old are just stories – not facts.

Thanks to Carbon dating, we’ve learnt about our past and the movement of Homo sapiens. This is thanks to a story written by the charcoal in our ancestor’s bones that we could only understand once we understood atomic physics.

On the flip side, our many technological advances have shrunk time in a way we’d never have imagined. We live in a time when everything is expected to happen instantly or in “real time.” The same advances have led to a group of entrepreneurs to fund a 10,000 year clock or the “Clock of the Long Now.” The builders of this clock intend this to be a nod to longer term thinking.

Will we take the long term perspective or let the short term triumph? Will we be high frequency traders or good ancestors?

Only time will tell.

“This is the paradox of our age. On the one hand, we have short attention spans and an ability to measure time in minuscule increments. But, on the other, we are able to trace human actions back to thousands of years and also have an appreciation for the fact that this advance was 500 years in the making.” | Steven Johnson


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

When you check your GPS

Every advance in measuring time has involved a new science. We progressed through –

  • Astronomy: Sundials had a fair amount of margin of error
  • Dynamics: Thanks to Galileo, we had pendulums and higher accuracy
  • Electromagnetics: The discovery of Quartz gave us microsecond accuracy
  • Quantum mechanics: Atomic clocks, then, led us to nano second accuracy

At the start of the 21st century, Quartz’s microsecond-level accuracy was a revelation. It enabled modern day computers which need precise time measurement.

Then, Niels Bohr’s observation of the consistency of the Cesium atom led to the use of Cesium by the “International Conference of Weighs and Measures” in 1967 to adjust any errors from Quartz.

The power of accurate measurement of time is that measuring time is key to measuring space. Every time we glance down at our phone to find our location, we’re triangulating between at least 4 of 24 atomic clocks that tell us our location based on the last measured time (mindblowing!). Of course, we know this as the Global Positioning System or GPS.

“The next time you look down at your watch, think of the embedded layers of human ingenuity that make this all possible. As more progress happens, layers of ingenuity get buried. But, this can also obscure just how far we’ve come.” | Steven Johnson


Hat tip: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

Galileo Galilei and time zones

Galileo Galilei, attending mass as a college student in the 15th century, noticed a pendulum that seemed to keep consistent time. He didn’t act upon that thought as there was no real need for time keeping. He became a math professor and began more or less inventing science.

As shipping became commonplace, keeping time became important as it helped indirectly measure location too. So, accurate time keeping became valuable. And, Galileo went back to work on his idea to create the pendulum clock – and did.

Denison, in the US, decided to make a cheaper watch and his non jeweled watch sold at $3.50 versus 40 dollars and was a huge hit. A Chicago businessman called Sears caught on and created the Sears Roebuck collection by mail order (the first mail order business). Just as printing gave ru=ise to the need for spectacles, transportation required standardized time. So, an American railroad engineer proposed the 4 time zones that stand today from November 1883. A year later, the whole world’s time zones were standardized based on GMT.

The watch revolution became critical in the Industrial Age as “clocking in” was invented and as industrialists tracked everything using time. While workers adjusted to the new paradigm, the elites rebelled. “Romanticism” in this age was all about ditching the tyranny of time, waking up late, etc. – Steven Johnson (paraphrased)


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson. How we got to now beautifully chronicles the history of stuff we take for granted.

Clean water and the feminist movement

The combination of germ theory and the treatment of water with Chlorine led to a giant leap in public health. Millions upon millions of lives were saved and modern city living was made possible.*

Soon, companies began developing products with Chlorine. However, the rise of the clean industry was due to the wife of a San Francisco entrepreneur who was convinced that a less concentrated Chlorine based bleach could revolutionize home cleaning. She began giving out free samples to her customers and, thus, Clorox was born. Soon, the clean industry became the lynchpin of advertising, thus created the “soap opera.”

The clean revolution had some interesting side effects. Thanks to chlorinated water, we created our first modern swimming pools and the first modern bathing suits followed. Around this time (thanks to this?), basic attitudes toward exposing the female body were reinvented. Of course, many other factors – Hollywood, the feminism movement- contributed. But, very few recognize the role that clean water played in contributing toward this massive societal shift in attitudes toward the freedom of women.

“The other big contribution of the clean movement is the clean rooms that produce today’s microprocessors. They are cleaned by pure H2O that is undrinkable as it is too clean. Irony abounds. :)” | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

*Note: Organizations like The Gates Foundation is doing some incredible work in making sure the gains from clean are spread evenly. Half the population still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. We’ve made a lot of progress since the 1860s but still have a long way to go… 🙂

Ignaz Semmelweiss and John Leal

When Hungarian scientist Ignaz Semmelweiss noticed that maternity ward doctors were killing more women when they came straight after working with cadavers, he suggested that they should wash their hands, ideally with antiseptics. Sadly, he was endlessly ridiculed for this preposterous idea and died in an insane asylum.

Thanks to research on epidemics like cholera (by John Snow in London), scientists like Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur and better microscopes by the German company Zeiss glass, germ theory finally came to the mainstream. Koch figured out how to measure the amount of bacteria in a sample of water – a huge innovation in public health. Until then, you had to wait to see if less people died after you made a change to the water supply to judge if your experiment was successful.

Then, scientists began experimenting with Chlorine mixed in water – again decried at first. In response, John Leal conducted one of the riskiest experiments in history by adding Chlorine into the New Jersey water supply. He was tried in court as he was initially seen as a madman.

The results, however, proved him right. And, his decision to not patent his innovation makes him among history’s greatest unsung heroes.

“What made John Leal’s actions very noble was the fact that he chose not to patent it. Unencumbered, chlorine adoption spread all over the world. In the US alone, it is estimated to have improved adult mortality by 46% and child mortality by early 70%. One of the givens until then was the high probability of losing a child. The people behind this revolution didn’t get rich or become famous. But, they impacted our lives in incredible ways. ” | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)


Source: How we got to now by Steven Johnson (History of clean water continued from “Raising Chicago by 10 feet“)

The Ikea effect and Origami cranes

When Dan Ariely built a chest of drawers that he bought from IKEA, he didn’t enjoy the process. But, once he finished, he noticed that he looked at the chest of drawers a lot and felt a sense of pride.

So, Dan, Mike Norton, and Dan Mochon conducted an experiment where participants were asked to make origami cranes. When they built easy cranes, they found that the creators of the cranes were willing to pay 5x more for their creations than neutral buyers. This difference went up for harder-to-build cranes.

P E Duff discovered this idea in the 1950s when the easy-to-make cake recipe didn’t sell all that much. Sales picked up when they made the recipe more complicated and included complicated instructions to decorate cakes with frosting.

Zappos built its reputation as a great place to work by allowing their employees to build their own experiences. They could build their cubicles and their own call scripts. Zappos understands that we’re all toddlers. And, like all toddlers, we love things we build.

We often dream of paying others to do our chores, cook our food, etc. But, given how much we love putting in work and tasting the fruits of our labor, are these dreams contributing to feeling alienated in our lives? In the long run, these minor annoyances may be our sweetest memories. A little sweat equity pays itself back in meaning. And, that is a high return on investment. – Dan Ariely


Source: Payoff by Dan Ariely, The IKEA Effect study

Bell Labs, de Forest and SONAR

Bell Labs, the “idea factory,” was a result of anti trust law. Between 1930-84, all phone calls went through AT&T. They convinced the government a monopoly was necessary. So, the government made a deal with AT&T to make its patents/ideas public in return. Thus, Bell Labs’ inventions were open to everyone.

In 1910, inventor Lee de Forest tried amplifying radio signals to transmit human voice. This was a successor of the morse code telegraph invented by Marconi. Bell Labs’ engineers built on this to invent radio broadcasting.

While de Forest hoped radio broadcasting would spread classical music, it was jazz that actually broke through. Jazz sounds were better suited for primitive radios. Thus, the radio was monumental in bringing African-American culture into the white American living room.

Amplifiers followed. Then, “distortion” led by guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. And, alongside, in World War II, a device called SONAR began being used in World War II to detect submarines. This was thanks to a Canadian scientist who was intrigued by the challenge of preventing sea crashes like the titanic by bouncing sound waves off objects in the sea. Thanks to sonar, ultrasound followed.

(The story of sound continued from last week)

Amplifiers freed us from any constraints that we had artificially solved via operas and cathedrals. Adolf Hitler was one of the first exponents of this. But, it also made Martin Luther King’s speeches possible. Similarly, SONAR’s most powerful use was ultrasound which helped countless mothers during their pregnancy. But, it also led to massive female infanticide in Asia. Technology has always been a double edged sword.  | Steven Johnson (paraphrased)


Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson